In Vermont we have seen education costs rise, while our student population has decreased by 23,000 students since 1997. The steepest increase in costs has been for special education. Outside of teacher salaries and benefits, special education costs represent a lion’s share of our school budgets.
Vermont’s Agency of Education reports that while the share of federal funding for special education stagnated between fiscal years 2001 and 2014, Vermont’s share of costs have more than doubled from $137,789,654 to $271,185,794.
Nationally, we know it costs about twice as much to educate a student who requires special education services versus a student who does not. I believe we can reduce these costs while improving outcomes for all children.
Start earlier: Learning begins at birth
Am I suggesting we cut special education? Absolutely not! Special education programs serve our most vulnerable children. But we do have an opportunity to make these services far more effective.
By identifying at-risk children earlier and starting services earlier, we have the greatest opportunity to improve outcomes for these children and the potential to reduce costs over the long-term.
Here’s why: From birth to age five, a child’s brain is developing most rapidly, making connections and building a foundation for skills that will serve them for a lifetime. If we miss these most receptive stages of development, a child may find it more difficult to learn particular skills later. The greatest return on any investment comes in these early years when the brain is most ready to learn.
Here are a few Vermont stats to put this in perspective:
- Only 26% of Vermont children age 0 to 3 receive all three recommended developmental screenings by age three. We can change that.
- 20,000 young children spend a portion of their day outside their home in the care of someone else. And, only 24.1% of Vermont’s regulated care and education programs are designated as high-quality programs (a 4- or 5-level rating in STARS or national accreditation). We must build quality into the early care and education system.
- In 2013-14, less than half (49%) of Vermont children were deemed ready for kindergarten in all areas of health and development. High-quality early care and education programs will ensure that more of our children are ready to learn.
A recent North Carolina study suggests that state-supported high-quality early childhood programs can reduce special education costs and reduce the number of special ed placements, providing great cost savings to school districts. In the study, an investment of $1,100 per child (made during the early years) reduced third grade students’ odds of needing special education placement by 39%.
While early intervention will not eliminate the need for special education entirely, studies have shown that starting these services earlier can make a difference. Such services can lessen the need for more intensive, and more costly, services later, or, in some cases, can eliminate the need for special services altogether.
Gaining a greater return on our educational investment
We can tackle the quality and cost challenges by reframing how we define public education. By providing high-quality programs and services starting at birth, during the most crucial years of development, we can ensure that all children receive the support they need to develop a solid foundation for their future cognitive, social and emotional development.
Strong communities and a healthy economy are based on the well-being and health of our children. After all, if we want our children to be productive members of society as adults, we must invest in them while they’re young.